They were supposed to disband after one album but, 20 years on, Manic Street Preachers are ‘the last band standing’, Nicky Wire and James Dean Bradfield tell Tony Clayton-Lea
Welsh band Manic Street Preachers are, in the succinct words of bass player/lyric writer Nicky Wire, “the last band standing”. What he means by this is apparent by the manner in which Wire – and his guitarist/vocalist brother in arms, James Dean Bradfield – manages to be both disarmingly straightforward and almost apologetically resilient.
“Our generation of bands has blown it,” clarifies Wire, a rangy man who, had he lived in the 18th century, would most likely have been described as a popinjay. “Or disappeared, split up, reformed, come back, made loads of money and split up again. I don’t think anyone has replaced us. We’re not quite sure if people still want music like this, but we hold on to the hope that they do, because we don’t want to communicate just to ourselves. That’s not hugely satisfying.”
The band’s aim, adds Bradfield – a rather more compact figure with a vice-like handshake – for their new album, Postcards From a Young Man, was to have no shame in its origins, to flagrantly highlight their first musical loves and to transform those influences into their own music: “For there to be a nostalgia in the music, but for it to talk directly to people in the here and now.”
Welcome to the Wire and Bradfield show, a two-hander that took place recently in a posh Dublin hotel. It featured two smartly attired gentlemen from arguably one of the most important bands of the past 20 years, discussing relevance, tradition, integrity and how to nip nimbly into middle age, and a semblance of dignity, without losing sight of their original, rigorously intellectual manifesto.
Some might recall the band’s early days, at the start of the 1990s, as a quartet of ambitious schoolfriends from the small Welsh mining town of Blackwood. With a love of The Clash and a pocketful of dreams, they decamped to London where, upon signing to Sony in a blast of rhetoric and a dust of make-up, they declared that they would release a debut album of such cataclysmic proportions that it would sell millions. And that they would then promptly split up.
Clearly, such a credo was not adhered to, but as the years passed certain things happened that not only added weight to their original well-meaning (if sometimes ridiculously off-beam) claims, but also lent them an almost mythic status. These included songs such as Motorcycle Emptinessand Life Becoming a Landslide, albums such as The Holy Bibleand Everything Must Go, and, in February 1995, the disappearance of the band’s original lyricist, Richey Edwards, the cognitive force behind the above-mentioned albums.
“I don’t feel embarrassed about what me and Richey said,” says Wire, “but I do feel a bit embarrassed for James and our drummer Sean [Moore], because they had to go along with us. I’m not sure if they ever felt as nihilistic as myself and Richey did.”
Twenty years and a somewhat rollercoaster career later, Manic Street Preachers find themselves as part of a diminishing vanguard of rock acts. The band are viewed in some quarters as just as anachronistic as the acts they wanted to destroy in 1990. Others view them as a fiercely honest unit whose singular perseverance in trying to remain creative is a beacon of hope for those who bristle at Jedward and their ilk being described, almost defensively, as “entertaining”. Wire understands that such doggedness can be viewed as burdensome rather than impressive.
“It’s fine balancing act, and we have walked that thin line,” he says. “You’re one step away from becoming a museum piece. With our history and back catalogue we could always go that way and make a good living out of it by playing gigs that comprise all of The Holy Bibleor Everything Must Go. We’ve resisted all those things, and I’m not sure how long we can keep doing that. It’s a question of relevance, and if you still feel you are relevant then, yes, perseverance is a goal.
“Someone like Paul Weller, for example, has become a huge inspiration to us. He’s in his 50s and he has made two of his best albums in the past few years. He still has that rage, which is curious for a man of his age, but also very admirable.”
“It’s one thing to use nostalgia as a creative tool,” says Bradfield, “to delve back into the past to give you inspiration – but to allow it to become the whole reason why you exist is not enough. Sometimes, some musicians sell themselves short.”
How, then, do you avoid turning into a heritage act? Inevitably, says Bradfield, there is a part of you that is just that. “You can’t deny that people like hearing the best-known songs because it reminds them of life experiences. If you remain committed to writing songs and recording them as you did on the first or second album, and if you’re still putting in the same amount of effort, then you will connect with new people. It’s okay to have a tradition, a history, because that allows you to go somewhere else, it allows you not to be trapped.”